We were driving down to Hastings, Jorge and me, with a trunk full of six four-day-old puppies in a cardboard grocery box. Pit bulls. The whole way down 61 you could smell and hear them, whining away through the Camry's back seat, or more like they were singing out of tune. The day was cool and gray. Only when we hit one canyon of a pothole somewhere just past Cottage Grove did the dogs finally quiet down.
I was taking Jorge to Hastings to show him what it means to be a man.
Dawnita and Jorge's mother was dead, and neither had ever known either of their fathers. I have always been attracted to women who've needed me around, found me useful. Back during this time, I'd somehow learned to seduce single, beleaguered women with dead-end jobs and small children. Prior to Dawnita, for two years when I was twenty, I'd dated an older woman named Yolanda who had a toddler boy and infant girl. I looked after them while Yolanda worked at an Ethiopean restaurant. In the end, I found out she was sleeping with a woman bartender named Daria she'd sometimes lock up with. Yolanda was half Ethiopian, and for a time I forgave her because I could see how if you've never dated your own kind, you might always wonder. And because we'd talked about marriage, it sort of made sense, the need to get this kind of question out of your system. . .until I learned she and Daria were planning a trip to Hawaii together—and I was supposed to change a thousand diapers in our one-room apartment while they sipped pina coladas out of live coconuts on paddle boards.
The pitbulls were going to be a peace offering to the farmer whose dog Jorge had shot and killed six days before. It was Dawnita's idea, despite my misgivings. I was worried about what the farmer, a well-off man named Reiner Toleffson, noted for his unpredictability, might do when he saw Jorge again. I was also worried about what Jorge was capable of, despite my and Dawnita's having sat his ass down to explain the situation in the kitchen.
We'd just finished the chili I'd heated up for dinner.
“I thought it might be rabid,” Jorge said, about the man's dog he'd shot. It was a lie through the little gap in his front teeth. But Dawnita has certain ideas about her little brother that don't allow her always to see such things.
“Then why even let them fight in the first place?” she asked.
Dawnita is an impressive woman—still a few inches taller than her gangly, fourteen-year-old brother, and a good ten pounds heavier. But, more, it's the sharp, harsh features she can bore into you with, accentuated by pencil-drawn eyebrows and sometimes also lipstick liner.
“I don't know.” He half-shrugged.
Jorge had shot the farmer's pit bull after it had torn open his own favorite dog's throat in a cramped, moldy basement match in Frogtown.
“I won't do it again,” Jorge muttered, slumped in the cracked orange plastic booth. Under the kitchen's single fluorescent light, you could already see what his face would look like in middle-age.
“We don't know that,” I said to Dawnita. “Maybe he will, maybe he won't.”
“I just don't know what to do anymore,” she said, rubber-banding her black, bronze-high-lit hair into a ponytail behind her head. “How many times I gotta cry over you?”
None, I thought, but kept my mouth shut.
“I didn't know it was loaded,” Jorge said, making no sense.
Jorge is a typical teenager, except with a skin condition that splotch-bleached a third of his otherwise dark brown face to three basic colors: brown, reddish pink, and off-white. People think it's an acid burn, and he likes to make them believe it is, so he seems harder than he really is. But the truth is he was born with it. Hyper-pigmentation. Sometimes he uses it to cull pity. Other times, like a weapon his eyes steel themselves behind.
“Can I go now?” he said, eying us like we were both frothing at the mouth and in his pocket he still had that .22 he'd picked up from a meth-head neighbor a few months earlier.
“If you climb out that window upstairs one more time,”Dawnita said, “don't bother ever coming back.”
“I pay rent,” Jorge said, half under his breath.
“You contribute to this family,” Dawnita corrected.
Now Dawnita was standing over him. This, her typical method to try to psychologically break him. In the past, he might have shrunk. But now that he was making good money fighting his dogs, he just tinkered with the plastic flowers in a vase, ignoring her stare.
“I guess we all better take a chill pill,” I said.
“Take this little shit out of my sight,” Dawnita finally said. She walked past the garbage can overflowing with paper plates and stopped in front of the sink. I could tell she was really upset, in part also from the fight she and I had had earlier that morning.
“Fuck you both,” Jorge muttered, stomping down the hall and out the front door.
“Little motherfucker.” Dawnita used a spoon to clean a plate with macaroni and cheese on it that had turned to granite.
Suddenly, I felt overwhelmed with sadness for both Dawnita and Jorge.
They are only half siblings by an affair her father had with their mother, who was from Shreveport, Louisiana. Jorge didn't look Mexican. Dawnita did. Mexican and something. Not Asian, though, unlike me. That was the only thing she didn't have in her. She often made sure I knew that.
For the record, I don't condone dog fights. I don't even really like going. Lately, they can't open the windows in those two or three basements, so the smell begins to burn. I only took Jorge that first time the summer before this incident because I was supposed to be watching him, and a friend needed me to work security at the very last minute. It was going to be our secret. A week later, a neighbor sold Jorge his first pup, and then another man gave him a second mongrel, and what do you expect from a lonely brown kid who doesn't have any friends or parents and a splotch on his face like Australia the color of bacon?
I didn't think it was a good idea for Dawnita to let him keep training them. But after the kid won almost a grand from his first fight, giving her half, I knew she'd eventually cave.
And I knew I wouldn't say anything.
The boy had a way with the dogs, knew how to move with and talk to them.
“I don't hold you responsible,” she'd told me in bed one hot rainy night. “I just don't want to know any details. If anything bad happens, it's on you. And keep those mangy things away from my damn tomatillos.”
Reiner Toleffson. I got the name of the Hasting's farmer from Warsame, the dude who'd hosted the Frogtown match. Warsame was cold to me on the phone over the shooting. “Why you want to know about that farmer? Believe me, he don't want to know nothing about you.” But we'd gone to middle school together and by then, I was taking my third class in refrigeration technology at St. Paul Tech and knew Warsame was trying to get out of the game. So I hinted that as soon as I got my own business going, I'd personally train him.
“I just got to right this wrong,” I explained. “You know how Dawnita can get.”
“Leave that farmer alone. Shit, man. He's a pussy. He started to cry. Like he was a tiny child.”
I'd had a Pneumatic Controls class that night and so missed the whole shooting incident.
“Do me this one favor.”
“Just like a baby,” Warsame continued. “And then the crazy man takes his cash and picks up his dog in his two arms, never mind his nice jacket, and then he just goes. That's it. No words.”
“Don't go out there, my friend.”
“It's for the kid's own sake,” I said. “Unless you want him to turn out like you and me.”
Rural Minnesota has never done much for me. Fields. Silver silos. Chipped white barns. Water towers like armless giant robots. Sky on this afternoon like a giant oil spill with thunder in the distance.
The whole hour-long drive southeast, Jorge didn't speak much. I took it as a good sign that he'd finally accepted the fate of his pups. Or, at least, one pup—whichever one Toleffson wanted from the lot as restitution.
“Remember,” I said, as we pulled into Hastings proper. “Just say you're sorry. I'll do the rest.”
Jorge's Afro was out of control. Slouched in the passenger seat, he looked like he was balancing the car roof on his head.
“I feel sick to my stomach,” he said.
“Drink some more water.”
“I hate the taste of water.”
“Think of it like medicine.”
Maybe the pups had accepted their fate, too. Now they were completely silent. I jostled the car, which got a couple of the feistier ones yelping again.
“If he cusses you out, don't say shit,” I said.
“Whatever.” Jorge slipped on his headphones.
The gray day smelled like earthworms and fish and big, wet buckets of wind. In the distance, a formation of geese was veering northward and, suddenly, I could see what my and Dawnita's lives together would be like for the next decade. We'd get married, maybe buy a house. I'd have my own business and a few employees by then, and she'd hopefully be a nurse, or at least back in school. Fast forward fourteen, fifteen years, and I'd be sitting in the same place, having the same conversation with our own child, who, like Jorge, might be staring out at all the farms and fields in passing, wanting to either be more like or kill me.
“You know how I feel about your sister, don't you?” I said.
Now he was pretending to sleep while listening to his headphones.
“Not everyone would make you do what you're about to do,” I said, “but she loves you and wants you to know shit like this. That's not just a good sister, or woman…but a good person. You come from good people. Don't forget that.”
He'd forgotten to buckle up from where we'd last gotten gas and breakfast sandwiches with the money Dawnita had given me. But I let it slide.
Reiner Toleffson's land, five miles south of Hastings, sat on at least twenty acres. He was doing well—all new equipment; a Chrysler, a Ford pickup, and a silver SUV on the gravel driveway winding up to his house.
Clearly, dog fighting was just a hobby for him.
I pulled the Camry up next to the Ford in the grass and turned off the engine.
Because I hadn't been there on the night of the shooting, I figured I had about 30 seconds standing in front of the farmer to say things right before he laid eyes on the person who'd shot his best dog.
“Stay here,” I said, closing my door. Now it was starting to sprinkle. You could smell it, sweet like the water in a flower's stem.
Jorge pretended not to hear me, like he'd fallen asleep to the iPod he'd recently bought for himself with his latest winnings. One for Dawnita, too, and a plasma TV for the house.
I was half-way to the farmer's brick two-story when Jorge spoke up from the car. “You don't even know, do you?”
His eyes were still shut, a consternated look expanding across his forehead.
“Or do you just not care?”
I came back and leaned forward, propping myself in my open window. “Speak English, amigo.”
His seat was reclined, but he refused to open his eyes.
“She's just with you until she gets over him.”
The him, I presumed, was the fiancée she'd lost in Iraq a few months before I'd met her.
“We'll talk about this later,” I said, rising from the car window.
As I was walking back to the man's house, Jorge called out: “Because you're safe, you fat chickenshit! She would never actually marry someone like you!”
I knew Jorge was planning on joining the army as soon as he was of age. He'd basically stopped going to school. I suspected it, but hadn't said anything to Dawnita, who must have known it, too. You can only handle so much at one time.
“You're a babysitter and a live-in maintenance man!” Jorge shouted.
I could have turned around. I could have gone back and pulled him out of the car by the hair and dug my fingernails into his throat and treated whatever veins that popped out like earthworms and I was a fucking fisherman who hadn't eaten in days. I could have told him how close to signing the contract at the recruiter's office I myself had been. How the four homies I'd gone to that strip mall office with were now in Iraq, Germany, and Afghanistan. One dead. One in the Brig. But how I was different because I didn't need the military to cure my life. I could save or destroy it myself.
“Can I help you?” someone called from the porch. It was an older woman holding a tin watering can. She wore an expensive-looking dress and matching jacket, like maybe she worked as a bank administrator or high school principal. Only when I saw the Bible in her other hand did I realize that she'd probably just come back from church.
“Young man, are you okay? Do you need something?”
Just then, the farmer came out. He too was wearing his Sunday best. The large man was older than his wife by about twenty years, and he walked with a silver-handled cane. Aside from his thick gray hair, slicked back, he was a mess: heavy breathing, humpbacked, and overweight by at least a hundred pounds. But he was sharp still. I could tell by the way he slowly fixed his faded blue eyes on me over his glasses.
It took him forever to hobble off the porch to where I was standing.
“Can I help you?” he asked, cautious but not unwelcoming.
“Mr. Reiner Toleffson?”
“You boys selling something?”
“No, sir. It's about something that happened last week, in the city.”
“The city, you say.”
The old woman was still on the porch, listening.
“Maybe it'd be better if we spoke in private,” I said.
Something about the old man's gaze made you feel self-conscious.
“It involves that dog you lost,” I said, lowering my voice. I'm not exactly sure why I said what I said next. I am only thirteen years older than Jorge. But it somehow felt right. “The dog of yours my son there in the car shot.”
Finally, the farmer understood. Strolling down the drive, I explained exactly what our purposes were, and asked him if he'd like to go somewhere else to look at the pups. He finally looked back at his wife, and waved her back into the house. She turned and lingered for a moment.
“That him there?” He cupped one hand over his eyes toward Jorge, still slumped in the car.
“Yes,” I said.
“I guess we better take a look at them then, since you come all this way.”
I won't say I liked the old man. Any more than he seemed to like me. But I think he understood what I was trying to do, and so there was a certain unspoken respect built between us from the get-go.
When I opened the trunk, the box of six new pups looked drugged. A miasma of heat and piss rose, and I wished we'd thought to take them out in Hastings proper and put them in the back seat so they could cool off.
Reiner Toleffson stood over the open trunk and removed his glasses to clean them with a handkerchief. “Yep,” he said, “I guess them are some pretty decent dogs.”
I removed a plastic bag from the trunk. “These here are photos of their parents. Tough as nails.”
He looked and made a face, though it was hard to tell if it was the wind and slight warm drizzle, or something about the dogs in the photos.
“Let's take this elsewhere,” he said. He put the photos into the plastic bag and placed it carefully back in the trunk.
“Jorge!” I called, but he had the volume way up, pretending to be asleep.
“Don't do that,” the old man said, looking back at the house. “Not here.”
It took the old man ten minutes to return to the house, get a hat and jacket on, and finally pull his pickup out so we could follow him. Twice I spoke to Jorge and even thought of yanking his headphones off or punching him. But from the peaceful look on the boy's face, I decided to wait until we got to wherever we were going.
We followed the old man for over ten miles, long enough to make me want to pull up beside him and ask how much longer. But I didn't. At one point, I wondered if he was leading us out to some barren field to shoot us. At the same time, not once did I have an urge to turn the Camry around.
People pay great prices for this kind of feeling of destiny, or fate.
Because by now I figured that whatever was going to happen was going to happen, and so reached forward under the dash for the space I'd made for my gun and slipped it in my coat pocket. The whole time, dribble leaked out of the clouds like some great, purple-gray stomach rupture would at any minute break into torrential rain.
After twenty minutes the old farmer pulled off the highway and eventually onto a gravel drive leading to a smaller, shabbier farm.
“Wake up,” I said, pulling the Camry up behind the old man's SUV. This time I pulled off Jorge's earphones. “We're here.”
“I'm up,” Jorge said, groggy.
“Remember, just say you're sorry. I'll do the rest.”
“Okay.” He was dazed, had really fallen asleep, and so, very briefly, was his truest self.
“If there's any trouble, just take off. Here, hold these.”
For the first time all afternoon, maybe all week, he looked me in the eyes. Finally, he reached out and I dropped the car keys into his palm. As the old man got out of his SUV, I popped my trunk and went around. One of the pups had almost completely chewed the collar off another pup.
“Mind bringing them around this way,” the old man called, “so we can get a dry look at them?”
“You can see them fine like this,” I called back.
“That pole barn right there should do the trick,” he said and began hobbling toward it, as if I hadn't spoken.
You may have gotten in the car and driven home. Maybe you would even have lied to your girlfriend and told her the farmer didn't want any stupid pup. Or thrown one out of the car on the highway and said, “yeah, he took one,” and left it at that. Or just dumped the whole damn box in a river, gotten your record albums from her basement, and never turned around again.
“Where you going?” Jorge called from the car.
“You heard the man.”
Jorge fell quiet for several seconds. “I ain't going in there.”
“Then don't,” I said, without looking back.
“Fuck you for bringing me here!”
“Thanks, but I already got your sister to do that. And hers is a lot nicer than your ugly, fucked-up face.”
“You're making a big mistake!”
The pole barn was cramped with fertilizer and ammonia, but it was dry, as the farmer had promised. The old man had turned on a kerosene lamp. I waited for my eyes to adjust then put the box of half-dazed pups down on a wooden table littered with several ancient-looking awls and other rusty tools. I had a pair of gloves in my pocket, next to my gun, and thought of slipping them on, just in case. My heart was thudding, and the pups seemed to know something strange was about to happen. They shuffled quietly, eyeing me like I was the wrong and only god.
“Get your fucking ass over here right now,” the old man spoke behind me. “Now.”
We are all of us given a destiny like a race and parents and language and a roulette wheel of beliefs and ideas, and the best you can do is not look too hard and hopeful, as someone else with a half-smirk spins the thing.
“Goddammit, if you don't get your ass out here right now I'll light this whole goddamn place on fire, so help me God.”
As it turned out, the old man was talking on his cell phone. With his free hand, he fingered through the largest red tool box I'd ever seen. I lowered my hand from the gun inside my jacket pocket, feeling stupid.
A pup with black gums started barking.
“Help me out here,” the old man said, this time to me. “Fill this bucket with water. Should be a hose just outside.”
It was just past three now, though by the way the clouds were, it might as well have been dusk. As I got the hose and filled the bucket, I caught Jorge watching me from inside the car. At first I thought the furrow in his brow was out of spite, but on a second look, I realized he wasn't even looking at me. A tall, thin figure was approaching from the front door of the shabby farmhouse.
“What the hell is going on?” shouted this other man. He was thin and wore white cowboy boots, leather chaps, and carried an oversized, feminine orange umbrella. Both his arms were sleeved with tattoos, and the only significant hair he had on his head was a foot-long reddish-brown goatee. Still, he looked vaguely familiar.
“Who are these people!”
Clearly, he was in a bad mood. He passed right by the running hose in my hand without comment, trudging through the soft mud into the pole barn.
I was smoking a cigarette when Jorge finally came up beside me.
“I want to go,” he said.
Finally, the trip was beginning to pay off.
“I guess they're just deciding which is the best pup,” I said.
“Come on. Let's get out of here.”
“Maybe if you went to school, you wouldn't need to learn this lesson.” I flicked the butt and mashed it into the sandy mud. “Besides, I think you forgot about something. Your damn dogs are still in there.”
That one got him. He kept looking between the pole barn and the ground.
“It's okay,” he finally said. “That dog was one in a hundred.”
“The one you shot, you mean?”
“Because it beat yours.”
He looked at me, but not with malice. “I guess.”
The old man and Red Beard were in the pole barn talking in lowered voices when Jorge and I came in for the dogs. The two men could have been members of a very strange circus. The old man was smoking a cigar, and the younger one was trying pointlessly to clean off his white boots with a rag.
I guided Jorge gently through the darkness toward the two men.
“I'm sorry I shot your dog,” he said.
The only problem, he said it to the wrong man.
“Whatever,” Red Beard replied.
“You want one of them pups over there?” Jorge said, pointing at the box.
“I don't want your damn dog.”
By now, I was thoroughly confused. I thought maybe the old man would be, too. But, instead, he joined in on their little conspiracy. “Son,” he said to Jorge, “bring them animals over here to me.”
A field mouse darted across the pole barn floor, but no one noticed.
I decided to keep my mouth shut because maybe I was still driving out to Hastings and had fallen asleep and if I suddenly woke up, I'd jerk the wheel headlong into a semi. And then I'd never learn how this or the rest of my or Jorge's or anyone's life turned out in the end.
“Take one out,” the old man ordered Red Beard.
“You heard me."
“I don't want one.”
The old man whacked the box with his cane, causing not just the pups, but all of us in the pole barn to perk up. Three of the dogs started barking.
“Reiner, if you don't take one of these fucking dogs, so help me god, I'll find them dogs you got hidden wherever the fuck they are and I'll stomp on their heads one by one. You understand me?”
Red Beard, or, as it started to become clear, Reiner Toleffson Jr., shook his head, slowly approaching the box. The way he picked up one of the pups by the scruff made me like him even less than I already did.
“Now what?” he said.
“Outside,” the older commanded.
It was like the day was trying to go dark as fast as it could to prevent whatever was going to happen. Jorge held his own arms as if it was already late fall.
“Take this,” said Reiner Sr., handing the other a rusty awl.
Outside and up close, you could see the white strands woven finely into Reiner Jr.'s red beard. His eyes had almost as many crows feet as his father's. But you could also see something of his mother him, something matronly in his weak, sunken chin.
“You like to see these animals tore up, anyway,” the older said. “What's the difference?”
“You know the difference.”
“Don't give me that horse shit. No one eats your damn dogs. But you raise them and watch them get slaughtered just like a damn butcher.”
Red Beard turned to Jorge and me, looking like he was about to blame us for everything.
“Do you know what day it is?” the old man said. “No, because you got your orgies and your house of sin while your mother sneaks you money. Don't think I don't know.”
But it wasn't until Reiner Jr. squatted in the mud and held the sleepy, squirming puppy over the bucket of ice cold water that I realized why any of us was there: A mistake had been made. Actually, many of them. And this was just the consequence, the logical conclusion to every bad thing we had all ever done.
“I need a rock,” Red Beard muttered, shaking his head.
I looked at Jorge, who was watching, chewing dry skin on his bottom lip.
“No,” the older said. “Use your hands.”
Sometimes you're not sure. But sometimes you know—exactly what kind of winter it will be, long beforehand, by the sound of distant trees in the air.
It took a good two minutes for the last of the air bubbles to come up. The whole time, Red Beard looked at nothing but a few white pebbles the color of luminescent bone lodged in the mud.
At one point, as a jet passed high overhead, trailing its noise like a sonic tail, I thought I could maybe hear some of the other dogs in the pole barn wailing.
Storms, epileptic seizures, earthquakes… Sometimes they just know things.
But even after the jet had long passed, still nothing.
On the drive back, I kept all four windows down and the radio blaring. I could tell Jorge wanted to say something, but I didn't care.
Meanwhile, on either side of us, green pasturelands unfurled for a long time, and then scabbed slowly over into outlet malls, a water tower, asphalt, passing cars, buildings, more fields, more cars, another water tower, a faded rolodex of billboards, concrete, parks, steeples, a far, night-lit downtown, more neon and incandescent high-rises and billboards and trash and asphalt and strip malls and bars and clubs and schools and anonymous buildings and bodies, basements and churches—and all the other hidden altars people seek, when they need to corner something to believe in, better than themselves.
Ed Bok Lee is the author of two books, Real Karaoke People, a winner of the PEN/Open Book Award and a national bestseller in poetry, and Whorled (Coffee House Press, 2011), as well as several plays (Vintage Books; Pearson; Smith and Kraus; Duke University Press). A former bartender, phys ed instructor, journalist, and translator, he holds an MFA from Brown University and has lived, worked and studied throughout the U.S., South Korea, Russia and Kazakhstan.
“What It Means To Be A Man” was originally published in the Water~Stone Review, Fall 2011, in a slightly different version. Printed with permission of the author.